Strong views at Stornoway budget meeting

The public were left with more questions than answers at last night’s (Thursday) Comhairle budget consultation meeting in Stornoway.

More than 100 people crammed into the Comhairle chambers to give their views on the list of potential cuts drawn up by the local authority as part of their efforts to cut more than £5million from their budget.

A panel headed by Chief Executive Malcolm Burr attempted to answer questions put forward by those present but frustration was expressed by many that there were no Senior Managers present to give further details on the budget choices highlighted.

The big issues of the night were the possible phasing out of Itinerant teachers; cuts to funding for charities such as Action for Children and Penumbra; and changes to support for children with Additional Support Needs.

Describing that no decisions had been made, Mr Burr said: “These are not proposals, these are what we are thinking about. None of us want to be here, none of us came into public service to do this.”

He said that major efficiencies had been made within the council itself and that they now had 100 fewer staff in the organisation than they had had just a year ago.

He added that following the next stages of the process when the reaction from the public meetings and consultation would be brought back to councillors, it was highly likely that there would be further public meetings in January before the final setting of the budget.

The future of Itinerant teachers in local primary schools was a major issue of debate with one parent stating: “It’s true that primary teachers are trained to provide this to a minimum standard but specialist teachers are trained to a high standard.”

Mr Burr said he recognised the strength of feeling on this particular issue and this would be communicated back to councillors.

The introduction of an Asymmetric week was also a topic of questioning – a choice which would see changes to the school timetable.The Comhairle representatives said this would bring ‘huge savings in terms of staff training’.

A possible cut in funding to Action for Children brought passionate pleas by some members of the audience who repeatedly asked if the Comhairle could ensure that the same service would be provided to children and families if this was to go ahead.

They were told the services would be brought back in-house to the Comhairle and that there would be no reduction in the delivery of service.

The panel were accused of ‘skimming over the surface’ of questioning on the issue as they tried to move on to other topics but Mr Burr said it was necessary to ensure they covered all topics and agreed to return to it at the end.

One parent stressed that ‘even the smallest of changes’ to services for children with Additional Support Needs could have a massive impact.

A possible relocation of Community Education staff from St Lennans Centre on Point Street brought confusion as representatives from the Pointers committee voiced their opposition to any closure of the hugely successful youth centre.

They were told this had been an error and that Pointers youth café was not included in this proposal and it included only the staff based in the offices upstairs.

When asked where the staff would move to, the panel were unable to give an answer other than to say it would be to other Comhairle premises.

The consultation process is still open for submissions and further details can be found on the Comhairle website.

A final consultation meeting will be held in Ravenspoint in Lochs on December 4 at 7.30pm.